(Beyond Pesticides, February 19, 2015) Last week, regulators at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a genetically engineered (GE) apple that does not brown after slicing or bruising. The âArcticâ apple, produced by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, is engineered using a novel technique called RNA interference (RNAi). In the case of this GE apple, RNAi technology has been used to silence the genes that produce polyphenol oxidase (PPO), the enzymes responsible for the browning that results after an apple has been bruised. Government approval of this method of genetic engineering is raises serious concerns because of considerable uncertainty regarding the unintended effects of this technology. These concerns are compounded by the agrochemical industryâs future interests in using RNAi technology to control crop pests.
So far, USDA has approved commercial use of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious âArcticâ apples, and the company plans to produce Gala and Fuji cultivars in the future. Beyond the questionable utility of an apple that does not brown, are the health and economic risks associated with the appleâs commercial production and use. Some opposing the GE apple have dubbed it the âbotox appleâ as it can give applesÂ the appearance of being fresh long after it is sliced when it is not; raising concerns about the development and spread of bacteria. There is also uncertainty whether turning off these genes may impact other genes or the rest of the apple tree, as compounds that produce PPO are present throughout the tree, not just in the fruit.
There is also the constant threat that GE crops pose to organic farmers. Organic and non-GE apple farmers that produce their crops near where the Arctic apple is being grown put their crops at risk of cross-contamination from pollen (likely through bee pollination). A 2014 study released by Food and Water Watch and the Organic Farmersâ Agency for Relationship and Marketing (OFARM) found that one third of organic farmers have experienced GE contamination on their farm due to the nearby use of GE crops. The survey was conducted in response to USDA 21st Century Agriculture (AC21) report on âcoexistenceâ between GE and non-GE farmers.Â The AC21Â report was strongly criticized by the National Organic Coalition (NOC), of which Beyond Pesticides is a member, for recommending that organic and non-GE conventional farmers pay for crop insurance or self-insure themselves against unwanted GE contamination. Beyond Pesticides maintains that inÂ approving this and other new GE crops, USDA should stipulate that organic and non-GE farmers are entitled to assurances against trespass from genetic drift and compensation from the polluters for any losses in the value of their crop.
As many consumers are now aware, GE foods are not required to be labeled in the U.S.Â Without this statement, Arctic apples have the potential to make their way into you or your childâs lunch without any indication. A number of states, including Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado, have come close to requiring labels for GE products at the state level through razor-thin public ballots, but to date only Vermont has mandated these simple statements informing consumers. At the federal level, efforts to codify voluntary GE labels through the appropriately coined DARK Act have not moved forward. However, last week the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act was reintroduced in the House and Senate, with major support from over 700 American chefs, including Top Chef star Tom Colicchio, and33rd National Pesticide Forum speaker Hari Pulapaka, PhD (register now!).
By silencing the genes within an apple, RNAi technology presents risks that have not been fully evaluated by regulators. Without addressing these issues, agrochemical companies have begun development of RNAi GE crops that, rather than target a gene within the plant, produces RNA that acts as a pesticide able to silence the gene in a target pest, such as the western corn rootworm, which is rapidly developing resistance to current GE techniques thatÂ incorporate bacillus thuringiensis toxins. A 2013 study from USDA researchers identified risks to RNAi insecticides that include potential for off-target gene silencing, silencing of the target gene in unintended organisms, and immune stimulation.
It is critical that concerned citizens contact their state and federal elected representatives and urge them to support efforts to label genetically engineered crops. In the absence of mandatory labeling, residents can purchase certified organic foods, which prohibitÂ the use of any GE ingredients. For more information on the hazards associated with GE technology, visit Beyond PesticidesâÂ Genetic Engineering webpage.
Continue the conversation on GE labeling by attending the 33rd National Pesticide Forum, taking place this year in Orlando, FL, April 17-18th, 2015.Chef Hari Pulapaka, PhD, signatory to the 700 chefsâ letter in support of GE labeling will present his take on the issue. Early bird registration is in effect until March 15, so make your plans to register today!
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.